Autonomic neuropathy: its diagnosis and prognosis

Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1986 Nov;15(4):855-88. doi: 10.1016/s0300-595x(86)80078-0.


Autonomic neuropathy is now well established as a relatively common and significant complication of diabetes mellitus. Its importance has been clarified in recent years during which the extent of autonomic control over all areas of body function has been defined. Using simple cardiovascular reflex tests, autonomic abnormalities can be demonstrated without any corresponding symptoms. The often stated concept of 'patchy' involvement in diabetic autonomic neuropathy should now be rejected as too should the view that autonomic neuropathy is either 'present' or 'absent' based on a single test result. When generalized and predominantly metabolic disturbances, as in diabetes, give rise to impaired nerve function, autonomic as well as somatic components of the nerve are affected. Where damage is severe this leads to the characteristic florid picture of symptomatic autonomic neuropathy with its particularly poor prognosis. For the physician in a busy clinic, much of the theoretical and experimental basis for autonomic neuropathy may not appear of direct relevance. However, he has now to be aware of the clinical implications of autonomic damage in the diabetic. This may have particular relevance in the care of the diabetic foot (see Chapter 10), the recognition of many of the vague symptoms associated with autonomic damage, the treatment of disabling features such as postural dizziness and nocturnal diarrhoea, and an awareness of the poor prognosis associated with symptomatic autonomic neuropathy. He will also need to be alert to the dangers of general anaesthesia in such patients, and the possibility of sudden unexpected deaths. Diabetic autonomic neuropathy causes widespread abnormalities, some of which are clinically apparent, some of which can be detected by sensitive tests, and others which have yet to be discovered. Inclusion of the neuropeptides and other hormones within the compass of autonomic control has opened up a whole new area of investigative interest, with many complex interrelationships which still need to be unravelled. This should lead to better understanding of the pathophysiological processes that cause damage to diabetic nerves. With so much research effort directed towards better glycaemic control and aldose reductase inhibitors (see Chapter 8), it may eventually be possible to reverse or prevent this potentially disabling and lethal complication of diabetes.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Autonomic Nervous System Diseases / diagnosis*
  • Autonomic Nervous System Diseases / physiopathology
  • Blood Pressure
  • Cardiovascular System / physiopathology
  • Diabetic Neuropathies / diagnosis*
  • Diabetic Neuropathies / physiopathology
  • Digestive System / physiopathology
  • Esophagus / physiopathology
  • Heart Rate
  • Humans
  • Peristalsis
  • Posture
  • Prognosis
  • Pupil
  • Reflex / physiology
  • Sweating
  • Urinary Bladder / physiopathology
  • Valsalva Maneuver